But do all people who die experience similar NDEs, regardless of race, religion or culture? Are they a global phenomenon? This is a fascinating question, but unfortunately research into non-Western NDEs is sparse and conclusions must therefore be conjectural. Sample sizes have been too small. I have read accounts of NDEs based on Guam, sample size of four, and Hawaii, sample size of one, and Australian Aborigines, sample size also one – and that one taken from a legend! The Australian Aborigines were generalised as not experiencing Life Reviews. Meanwhile an Aborigine who has described his NDE at a number of public meetings recently states that he could not stop watching his Life Review, although he had desperately wanted to! Besides a Life Review, his NDE shares other features with classic Western ones, such as seeing his body during the OBE stage, and an unpleasant Prison experience, before being rescued by Jesus when he called out desperately for help.
Certain organisations that have been recording NDEs over some years, such as Celestial Travellers 1, which leans towards a New Age interpretation, have made generalisations that may help to guide future research:
One most extraordinary aspect of NDEs is that the underlying pattern seems unaffected by a person’s culture or belief system, religion, race, education, or any other known variable, although the way in which the NDE is described varies according to the person’s background and vocabulary. There is no evidence that the type of experience is related to whether the person is conventionally religious or not, or has lived a “good” or “bad” life according to his/her society’s standards (although an NDE usually affects strongly how life is lived afterwards).
IANDS 2, who have thousands of NDE records, makes their own analysis.
Similarities to Western NDEs are: the belief that this is the afterlife, a profound sense of peace, being in an otherworldly realm, meeting deceased relatives, meeting spiritual or religious figures (usually in keeping with one’s cultural background), and to a lesser extent experiencing some type of Life Review. The tunnel sensation was rarely reported in non-Western cultures.
In addition to small sample sizes, there are further problems in conducting international research. One is that of obtaining information from people of another culture and perhaps language from the researcher. For example, the IANDS summary above states that the tunnel sensation was rarely reported in non-Western cultures. More recently, J Steve Miller 3 has investigated this claim and found that in his sample, tunnels were reported more frequently, by a small margin, in Indian accounts than in Western ones. He suggests that tunnels may not have been asked about clearly enough in earlier international studies, or that the NDEr had not comprehended their significance to the research. Miller also disputes two further differences of degree claimed in earlier studies – that the presentation of Life Reviews was often by reading from a book, and that the manner in which the return was conducted was curt. In his investigations, he found no essential differences at all.
Much more extensive and confirmatory research is obviously needed. Miller’s conclusion, however, is worth reflecting upon.
So does the (NDE) pattern break down across cultures? Not in my opinion. As in western NDEs, some experienced only a few of the elements, while others reported a much deeper experience.
He also reports that similar changes occur in the lives of returnees across the world. Love is given priority. ‘I was amazed that even those who experienced only a brief NDE were typically motivated to change their lives – specifically to love, serve and help people.’
Notwithstanding IANDS, Celestial Travellers and researchers such as Moody and Sabom, who tended to concentrate on similarities between NDEs, there are also significant individual differences. Some of these are birthed perhaps in cultural and religious influences and descriptions. Dr David San Filippo 4 observes:
Near-death experiencers report that there are not appropriate words to accurately describe their near-death experiences. They therefore interpret the experience using words, phrases and metaphors that reflect their religious-cultural backgrounds and experiences.
Some differences are certainly birthed in language difficulties, but in my opinion others derive from how God always deals with us as individuals. Consequently, the experiences in the spirit world are personalised and vary to an appropriate degree. Culture and religion have had an influence on the individual’s development, and thereby on the nature of the NDE planned for him or her, together with an awareness of the situation they will return to on Earth. We need always to keep alert to the NDE being a learning experience for one individual within which the Transfer Principle applies. Consequently, it would not be helpful for a Tibetan Buddhist, for example, to meet with people from another culture or religion in unfamiliar surroundings speaking another language. Instead, spirit beings or relatives meet the NDEr in reasonably familiar surroundings and communicate in such a way that they are immediately understood.
NDEs in Different Religions
In practice, religion and culture are difficult to separate in most non-Western studies, so I will not attempt to.
Many view life after death as the exclusive province of religion. Should adherents of different religions expect NDEs to be similar to one another, based on the teachings of their particular religion?
A member of the Baha’i religion, Farnaz Masumian 5, conducted a search for common NDE elements across major religions. She states that OBEs, a spirit body, elements of a Life Review, seeing God as a Being of Light, meeting deceased relatives and the importance of love are found in the theory and texts of the major religions. Despite this, most religions nowadays reject or look with suspicion on accounts of NDEs. Consider PMH Atwater’s 6 statement based on her years of research:
In seeking stories from near-death experiencers, bear in mind that today, more than in the past, the various religious groups tend to be rather protective of their faith’s dogma. For instance: in the Muslim faith, visions and experiences like near-death are considered blasphemy. Even if a Muslim had such an experience (which they do), nine chances out of ten, he or she would never admit to such a thing – usually out of fear. I never encountered any problem with Muslims during most of my research fieldwork, but I do now. They clam up when I broach the topic.
A similar dearth of modern NDE material pertains to Hindu, Buddhist and other religions, for similar reasons.
The problem is not solely with religious leadership, but also with the expectation of the local society for people to follow tight cultural norms. They do not readily accept anything out of the ordinary. If you have lived and worked within other cultures, you may have seen the powerful influence of following ‘tradition’ and not ‘rocking the boat’. If NDErs who live in influential cultures claim to have had afterlife experiences, they may be looked upon with mistrust or even hostility, and perhaps in addition become suspected of grabbing at status. Many returnees save themselves social discomfort by saying nothing.
Nevertheless, my hope is that there will be increasing worldwide recognition of the importance of NDEs. As more religious leaders have them, it will become increasingly difficult for those religions to continue to discount or ignore them. A consequence could be that religious and cultural restraints could weaken; testimonies may then flood in by the thousand. A reliable worldwide analysis could then begin. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, for interest, let’s look at a small number of NDEs pertaining to followers of some non-Western religions.
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